Friday, June 26, 2015

kirby's dream land

It's hard to capture in words what just happened, for the simple reason that it's so easy to see what just happened.  It's not just a national championship.  It never is, I suppose.  By definition, national championships are stories to tell.

It's just, it's hard to think of a time the stories flowed so freely and easily.  There was the rematch.  The hometown boy and his statue.  The program barely a decade from being cut.  The tribute to a fallen police officer.  The ACC's championship drought.  The injuries.  The depth and lack thereof.  The multitude of clutch hits, pitches, and performances.  No, a national championship really is never just a collection of wins, but this one, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a storyline.  This thing means so many different things, it'd take an extra volume or two to capture it all.

I say we start with the last two innings, and I have the only vote.  Something extraordinary had just happened, which really doesn't narrow it down but still.  Brandon Waddell - Big Game Brandon, a moniker not even a month old - told Karl Kuhn he was done.  Even though UVA's pitchers are instructed to do that if they feel the need, it has to go against every competitive fiber in a player's body.  With Waddell understandably out of gas, Nathan Kirby took the hill.

Let's go back a bit.  As a UVA commit out of high school, Kirby was already considered nigh-unsignable by MLB clubs, but he famously went the extra mile by not even submitting to the MLB drug testing and medical requirements, making himself ineligible for selection.  A very rare step.  That recruiting class had some outstanding pitchers, but Kirby was the headliner.

And then he stunk.  A lot.  Expected to compete for a weekend role, Kirby only started two games and pitched mostly in relief.  Badly.  His fastball had less movement than a roadkill skunk.  His breaking stuff didn't get over the plate enough and hitters ignored it, waiting for the nice easy batting practice fastballs.  Waddell started the first game of the season, Josh Sborz immediately became an elite reliever, even Trey Oest - who left after that season - had a larger role.  Kirby's sophomore season was a night-and-day difference.  He was every bit the ace he was supposed to be.  Dominant.  Pitched great in the postseason, too - an eight-inning, one-hit, nine-K gem against Arkansas; a seven-inning, one-hit effort against Ole Miss.

It all came crashing down against Vanderbilt, though, in one absolute nuclear disaster of a third inning in which he walked five and ultimately got charged with eight runs.  And because of how things go, that was the lasting memory, even into a junior season that saw his ace self return, right up until the lat injury.

He wasn't even that good upon his return.  Rusty.  It was plain to see his command was less than sparkling.  He ended up tagged with the loss, though the game wasn't really over until well past his removal.  Getting the ball a few days later, he was walking to a mound where he'd never pitched well, to face hitters who had destroyed him when they saw him last.  And all he was being asked to do was close out a national championship.

Five strikeouts and a grounder later, everyone forgot all of that.  And if you ask me, that's the power of a trophy.  Kirby's story, to me, is as good as any in the tournament, but it didn't get a whole lot of attention, because the instant it became a story, UVA won, you know, a frickin' national championship.  But Nathan Kirby is too good of a pitcher and there was no way in hell he deserved to be remembered for the downsides of his career.

****************************************

I did say it'd take an extra volume or two.  Of the various teams I consider myself invested in, pro and college, I've watched them win, by my count, anywhere from 9 to 12 national titles, depending on how early in my life you let me start counting.  This one is either my first or second favorite; it's not fair to judge while I'm still riding high, but it's at least up there.  So, yeah, this is a weekend's worth of stuff right here.  Stay tuned.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

baseball is so awesome

Here's a question:

Name an outfit that ever deserved a championship more.

(hint: don't even try)


Sunday, June 21, 2015

series preview: Vanderbilt


Date/Time: Mon-Wed, 6/22-6/24; 8:00

TV: ESPN

Record against the Commodores: 1-4

Last meeting: Vandy 2-1 over UVA (8-9, 7-2, 2-3); 6/23-6/25/14, Omaha, NE (CWS Final)

Last game: UVA 5, UF 4 (6/20); Vandy 7, TCU 1 (6/19)

Pitching probables:

Monday: RHP Connor Jones (7-2, 3.05, 107 Ks) vs. RHP Carson Fulmer (13-2, 1.95, 159 Ks)

Tuesday: LHP Nathan Kirby (5-3, 2.61, 76 Ks) vs. LHP Philip Pfeifer (6-4, 3.77, 112 Ks)

Wednesday: LHP Brandon Waddell (4-5, 4.02, 87 Ks) vs. RHP Walker Buehler (5-2, 2.85, 89 Ks)

(The last two, for UVA, are guesses on my part.)

You can't make this stuff up.  Or rather, maybe you can only make this stuff up.  Imagine it, dream it, but never expect it to come true.  UVA started winning in California and just didn't stop, most recently taking two out of three from the SEC champions to bring in sight the pot of gold at the end of the road to Omaha.  I can't decide whether to be astounded the little team that could made it this far, or whether to call it postseason business as usual.  Winning the regional isn't that hard, so why shouldn't they?  And once you've won the regional, why shouldn't they win the super?  And once they win the super, why shouldn't they just keep on winning in Omaha?

Well, lots of reasons, actually.  The bullpen is Josh Sborz and "lol I dunno maybe this guy over here."  Nobody really knows who the ace starter is anymore.  The lineup has four guys in a row hitting under .250.  The opponents keep trotting out MLB-bound players.  Two of our top three draft picks are shells of themselves thanks to untimely injuries.  When teams like that keep winning, all a writer can do is fall back on things like "clutch" and "team of destiny" that drive opposing fans batshit insane.

And after all that clutch hitting and pitching, a rematch.  At the end of the road, the teams left standing are the same ones as last year.  The tables have turned somewhat: last year, UVA cruised through three games and set up the bullpen all nice and easy while Vandy needed the extra game to get past Texas.  UVA was probably the more talented team, and outscored Vanderbilt over three games, but didn't deliver in the clutch and watched Vandy walk off with the trophy.  Now the Hoos come in on fumes and giving up the on-paper edge in all conceivable aspects of the game.  Vanderbilt's rotation is set up all nice and neat and their pen is fresh.  It's true what they said on ESPN - a lot of books won't take bets on the series, so heavily favored is Vanderbilt.

Regardless, you have to play the games.  I told you a couple weeks ago, I didn't stop telling you, and I'll continue to tell you: Connor Jones and Brandon Waddell.  UVA will win for as long as those two are cutting down opposing hitters.  When they stop, so does the fun.  Let's hope those tables turn all the way.

Vandy's lineup:

-- Catcher: Karl Ellison (.213-2-15).  Ellison starts about 2/3 of the time, actually; Vandy also platoons in Jason Delay.  With a .292 batting average, Delay is the superior hitter, but Ellison is a better defender.

-- First base: Zander Wiel (.317-15-67): Cleanup hitter, which means he protects Dansby Swanson in the lineup.  Vandy will trot out three players in a row who've got 15 homers apiece, and Wiel is the last in that murderer's row.  Like UVA, Vandy won their winner's bracket game 1-0, and it was Wiel providing the decisive home run.

-- Second base: Tyler Campbell (.235-2-26). Unlike the Florida lineup, Vandy does offer some lightweight hitters.  Campbell bats ninth and hits for little power, little contact, and rarely walks.  He's a junior, but went undrafted this year.

-- Third base: Will Toffey (.297-4-47).  One of only two freshmen in the lineup.  Toffey bats fifth, sometimes sixth, and has good line-drive power.  Probably going to be one of the SEC's best in the upcoming years; for now a bit overshadowed but still dangerous.

-- Shortstop: Dansby Swanson (.337-15-62).  Did you know he was the top overall pick in the draft?  They might've mentioned it somewhere at some point, maybe in passing.  Let's face it, though - he is a really good hitter.  He leads the team in every hitting stat, walks and triples included, and has speed to go along with his bat.  You're allowed to breathe a little sigh of relief when he walks back to the dugout after an at-bat.

-- Left field: Jeren Kendall (.291-8-40).  The other freshman.  Leads the team in stolen bases, which is really an accomplishment on this team because Vandy is a hyper-aggressive team on the basepaths - and they have a tremendous success rate, too.  Also has six triples, tied for the lead with Swanson, and the best OPS (.959) on the team outside the aforementioned 2-3-4 hitters.

-- Center field: Bryan Reynolds (.319-5-48).  In Vandy's three games in Omaha, Reynolds is batting .500.  He hasn't made the headlines the way Wiel or Kendall did, with dramatic game-winning homers, but he's been Vandy's steadiest hitter.

-- Right field: Rhett Wiseman (.319-15-49).  In Vandy's lineup, the #2 hitter and the first of the three truly dangerous hitters.  Quite a change from last year when he hit zero home runs all season.

-- Designated hitter: Ro Coleman (.296-1-25).  Leadoff hitter.  Tough to pitch to because he's 5'5" and crouches, and draws a lot of walks that way.

Starting pitchers:

-- Monday: RHP Carson Fulmer (13-2, 1.95, 159 Ks).  Mid-90s fastball, absurdly good breaking ball.  Fulmer was the third pitcher taken in the MLB draft.  If you hate watching that stupid delivery of his, you're not alone; scouts hate it too, because it's a max-effort delivery that can sometimes jerk his control off track.  But it also distracts hitters, and though his walk totals are a touch elevated, Fulmer's allowed only a .186 BA all season.

-- Tuesday: LHP Philip Pfeifer (6-4, 3.77, 112 Ks).  Pfeifer missed last season - in fact he failed a drug test and was left off the team - but straightened out and returned to pitch well enough to be drafted in the third round by the Dodgers.  He's pitched even better in the postseason, most especially against TCU where he threw seven shutout innings.  Pfeifer has a solid curveball, and overall is rather similar to Waddell in that he's probably not going to top about 91 on the gun, at most, and relies on location and command to get hitters out.

-- Wednesday: RHP Walker Buehler (5-2, 2.85, 89 Ks).  Buehler's been a bit more hittable and less strikeout-ey than his teammates here, but was nevertheless drafted in the first round thanks to his ability to mix up speeds on his fastball and throw two different breaking pitches.  MLB.com describes his change-up as "inconsistent to effective" which is basically just saying "inconsistent."  Still, he too shut down the TCU lineup in Omaha and has only allowed one run in two postseason starts.

Let's face it: this is a tall order for UVA.  Very tall.  So was Florida; so was winning a bunch of regional and super-regional games against ostensibly excellent closers when trailing in the 7th and beyond.  Essentially, though, UVA just won a three-game series against Florida.  One in which Brandon Waddell got enough rest to pitch twice, sure, but a three-game series nonetheless.  Vanderbilt is very tough, but not remarkably tougher than Florida.  Slightly worse lineup.  Better ace starter, but the next two guys aren't much different.

Still, UVA must go into this probably without Josh Sborz on Monday.  Connor Jones needs to go nice and deep into the game.  Nathan Kirby presumably starts on Tuesday - that's on fairly short rest and another pitch count limit, after which the bullpen must deliver big-time, again.  And if the series goes to Wednesday, Waddell is on fairly short rest too - though he only threw 87 pitches and I mean once you get to Wednesday pitch counts are out the window.  Chances are good that someone like Alec Bettinger or Tommy Doyle is going to have to throw some quality innings.  That rubber game was a bullpen-killer.

Gotta play the games, though.  Vandy's undefeated in the postseason.  UVA has yet to be anything but an underdog - even when hosting a fellow #3 regional seed, more experts picked against them than not.  And yet UVA's looseness and comfort in the situation is not a cliche.  They're the team you watch from the other side of the bracket, hoping someone will take them out because until they're gone, you can't rely on the stats to tell you anything.  Now they're here in the finals and you have to do it yourself.  That's a great way to make the favorites nervous.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

gators chomped

I sorta wish I hadn't completely used up my supply of grandiose praise for Brandon Waddell last weekend, because - uh.  Going into the "bracket" games in Omaha - the second round, that is - here's how many runs each CWS team had scored up to that point:

Florida: 68
TCU: 68
Vanderbilt: 57
Miami: 51
Arkansas: 44
Virginia: 38
Fullerton: 35
LSU: 27

And Florida was one of only four teams to take the shortest path - the minimum six games and six wins to get to that point.  TCU needed the most games possible (nine), not the least, in order to tie with the Gators on that list.

Florida also won on Wednesday, rather easily.  Their run count in each game up to just now looks like this:

19, 8, 2, 13, 11, 15, BRANDON WADDELL, 10

Point: This is no small feat, what Waddell did to them.  Forget Miami, which got all the hype for their lineup and fizzled twice.  Florida has the best lineup in Omaha, and by logical extension, quite possibly the whole country.  Or if "best" is too subjective, certainly the most productive.

Was it just a bad day?  Hard to call it that, when they hadn't really proven themselves overly prone to them so far this postseason.  Waddell, a pitcher who specializes in - and requires - pinpoint location, had it in spades on Monday night.  He only struck out three hitters, which is four fewer than he did against Maryland.  But he pitched to a lot of successful contact.  Sabermetricians might point to BABIP and suggest some luck involved, which is why it's always important to put stats into context by actually watching the game.**  Only five Gators hit the ball into the outfield all day.

The pitching matchup was fascinating.  Waddell, the command and control artist, against Puk, the fireballing bazooka heaver.  Puk was effective in his own way, but he and command have yet to make each other's acquaintance.  That wasn't working on his third trip through the lineup and probably would've fallen completely to pieces on a fourth go-round.

Consider me impressed, blown away, absolutely smitten.  It took me a while to get here, I'll admit - Waddell's game has always seemed balanced on a ledge.  This year he was tipping right over, too, most of the season.  Two games have launched Waddell straight into the pantheon.  Very different games.  Both masterful pitching performances.

**I am not anti-sabermetrics.  Sabermetrics are fantastic.  I just think they augment rather than replace the good old-fashioned techniques.

***********************************************

-- I don't want to discount Josh Sborz, who accounted for two of the nine shutout innings after all.  Particularly the eighth, in which he escaped a two-on-none-out jam with catlike reflexes on one batter and unhittable stuff on the next five.  On that first out, there's so much that could've gone wrong.  First, the ball was just plain launched - dude could've been hurt.  If he'd deflected it wrong, like with the tip of his glove and off into foul territory, the run might've scored.  If he'd missed it, Ernie Clement was positioned almost up the middle and could've had a shot at a double play (if he'd made what would've had to be a pretty slick backhand stab) - but the run would've scored.  Then Sborz had to make a throw to the most dangerous base without his glove on - and it sounds stupid but that's a really distracting situation.  Randomly put a three-pound weight on, say, Peyton Manning's off hand in the middle of a play - he'd be suddenly haywire.  It's no different suddenly losing the same weight, if it's a familiar one.

-- Should BOC have sent Sborz in earlier?  Like at the beginning of the eighth, or at least after Waddell walked the first hitter?  Uh, no.  Keep in mind - Waddell was basically no-hitting these dudes.  Their one hit was a nubby little dribbler that in retrospect I'm glad happened because the added distraction of pitching an actual no-hitter would've been at best an unnecessary distraction.  Pull a dominant pitcher before he shows any signs of being less than dominant?  No reason to.

-- Florida will send Logan Shore back to the mound on Friday.  Shore beat Miami in the opener, but he wasn't sharp, and set the tone for his not-sharpness by thwacking the first batter.  And as is common knowledge by now, Nathan Kirby makes his long-awaited re-debut.  I really thought he'd stay in the pen, but the logic in this makes perfect sense: we don't know whether he'll be awesome or unbelievably rusty, and really, neither do the coaches.  If the former, Jones and Waddell line up to pitch the first two games of the finals.  If the latter, BOC can still choose between those two for the Florida re-rematch on Saturday.


Sunday, June 14, 2015

game preview: Florida


Date/Time: Monday, June 15; 8:00

TV: ESPN2

Record against the Gators: 1-4

Last meeting: UF 18, UVA 0; 3/9/89, Gainesville

Last game: UVA 5, UA 3 (6/13); UF 15, Mia. 3 (6/13)

Pitching probables:

Virginia: LHP Brandon Waddell (3-5, 4.15, 81 Ks)
Florida: LHP A.J. Puk (9-3, 3.96, 99 Ks)

Opening day in Omaha produced two storylines: UVA going all Ocean's 11 on the basepaths, and Florida dropping 11 on Miami in the fourth inning.   So the ACC and SEC will go another two rounds on Monday, with the ACC's 7th-place team in the Omaha winner's bracket.

Last week, the Washington Post's article on the win over Maryland started off with a great first paragraph:
As Virginia freshman Ernie Clement walked to the plate, the arc of the Cavaliers’ baseball season perfectly aligned with this moment. Virginia had struggled early, stayed within reach and now seemed poised for a dramatic rally.
The Arkansas game was even more such a microcosm, with all five UVA runs scored with two outs.  Matter of fact, until the 9th, every UVA leadoff hitter failed to get on base.  Connor Jones wasn't at his sharpest.  Adversity schmadversity; UVA merely smacked around yet another closer in the eighth and ninth innings and then once again gave Josh Sborz the ball and watched him grind opposing hitters into dust.  Thus the Omahoos/Omahogs matchup went to the good guys.

And of course, the running.  BOC was his usual self in the press conferences, because he's too nice to say "we noticed Tucker Pennell has a tendency to miss the target by six feet."  But that's pretty much what happened.  As soon as the coaches got a feel for when Trey Killian was going to throw a breaking ball, off went the runners.  They stole themselves out of a couple innings when Pennell made an accurate throw, but you don't even mind that.  Two strikes, two outs is a great time to give it a shot and if you get thrown out, oh well - your batter gets a fresh count next inning.

Up to this point, UVA has played some good teams.  USC, Maryland, Arkansas, not too shabby.  You can't win the CWS by only ever beating regional 2 seeds, though.  Florida is one of the top teams in the country - SEC champs, national 4 seed, and the pick of many to win the whole thing.  To the extent you can call playing any team in the tournament a "honeymoon," that part's over.  Florida's as good as any team in Omaha.  Waddell pitched a marvelous game last time out, against Maryland, but he won't be able to get away with putting dudes on base as much this time.  Florida's lineup is as so:

-- Catcher: J.J. Schwarz (.335-18-73): Mike Rivera had the catching duties last night, but Schwarz is usually behind the plate when Puk pitches.  Schwarz is a terrific hitter, nearly as good as Andrew Benintendi, but has only thrown out four of 23 basestealers this season.  That stat and UVA's sudden running game may spook Kevin O'Sullivan into putting Rivera back there again, but coaches don't like to screw with their rotations too much.

-- First base: Peter Alonso (.305-3-28): Looks like a cricket player because of the mask he wears to protect his face.  Alonso is a good hitter whose extrapolated stats are excellent; the mask is necessary because of a broken jaw earlier in the year.  The fact that he hits sixth is a testament to the deep Gator lineup, and he flashed a great glove on Saturday with a diving stab of a Miami line drive otherwise destined for the corner.

-- Second base: Dalton Guthrie (.294-2-25): Yes, the Gators have a .294 hitter batting ninth.  OK, eighth on Saturday.

-- Third base: Josh Tobias (.370-5-44): A 10th-round pick of the Phillies, Tobias probably should've gone higher.  The toughest out in the lineup with a .446 OBP, Tobias has some power as well, and has committed one error all year at the hot corner (as well as playing some second base.)

-- Shortstop: Richie Martin (.287-5-33): Martin's stats aren't much to look at, but the A's made him the 20th overall pick of the draft.  Weirdly, he's hit better in wood-bat summer leagues than in college.

-- Left field: Harrison Bader (.289-15-62): Bader is Florida's leadoff hitter, a bit odd as he's more of a traditional power hitter with high slugging and high strikeout totals - you would probably peg him as the cleanup or fifth hitter, normally.  Still, it's doubtful he'd have been a 3rd-round pick without some speed, and the big-league scouts think he has a chance to play center in the pros.

-- Center field: Buddy Reed (.316-3-44): Fast player who represents one of the Gators' two biggest steal threats on a team that likes to do that.

-- Right field: Ryan Larson (.308-1-24): The Gators platoon this position between Larson and Jeremy Vasquez; since they'll face a lefty on the hill, the right-handed Larson probably gets the call.  Vasquez is the better hitter and could pinch-hit somewhere, but Larson batted 9th on Saturday and hits .308 - again, you could do much, much worse.

-- Designated hitter: Mike Rivera (.267-3-45): If there's such a thing as a respite in the Florida lineup, it's here; Rivera's a freshman whose bat is a little less frightening than the rest of the bunch.  If Rivera is catching, Schwarz will DH instead.

-- Starting pitcher: A.J. Puk (9-3, 3.96, 99 Ks): With a .211 OBA, Puk's high ERA is a function of control.  Puk is a rarity - a huge, power-throwing left-hander, a trait that will get him drafted in the first round when he's eligible next year.  Coming out of high school, he was already throwing in the low 90s, and his powerful, well-located fastball has only improved since.  He's at his best when blowing his fastball by hitters and controlling his change-up.  A post-high-school scouting report, though, basically said "his curve stinks and will always stink."  Take that with a grain of salt.  The same writer said he was a 70% chance to sign despite being picked in the 36th round.  High schoolers headed to the SEC and taken in the 36th round would have to be so stupid to sign that no organization would want them.  Still, Puk's fastball is excellent, and references to his control are basically allusions to his breaking pitches.  UVA's chances depend on whether they can find and catch up to Puk's fastball; if not, it won't really matter if his off-speed stuff can't find the strike zone.

-- Bullpen: Miami did the Hoos no favors; the Gators will have their full arsenal ready to go.  Neither closer Taylor Lewis (6-1, 1.89, 33 Ks) nor top long reliever Bobby Poyner (5-2, 2.73, 56 Ks) pitched against the Canes.  Even if they had, the pitchers they did use only went an inning apiece and will all be available.  Florida has a very deep bullpen, and most of them were drafted; even if Puk is knocked out early, using it up is not in play.

****************************************

Nothing's changed.  As with before, it comes down to if Brandon Waddell can work deep into the game.  It's just, that'll be a lot harder than in the past.  UVA will be a major underdog here.  Not for the first time, but not yet by so much.

It's doable, though.  Puk has a powerful arm, but it can sometimes be a loose cannon.  Waddell is battle-tested through and through, and the team has the right attitude for Omaha.  They have the easy confidence that comes with experience and comfort in the environment.  And Florida used up all its runs against Miami.  (OK, that last thing is not a thing.)

UVA's storyline diverges here.  This game means almost everything.  The winner gets four days to rest its pitchers and needs only win one more to get to the finals.  The loser has to win three.  Connor Jones can go again on Friday, but if UVA has to play on Wednesday they'll be digging deep, and may not have the arms to win on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.

In other words, a loss means the story goes like this: UVA scrapped and battled and put together a really nice improbable run, but unsurprisingly ran out of juice at the end.  Good game, see you next year.  A win, though, and UVA starts to look like the Michigan State of baseball: doesn't matter what happened in the regular season, just get Brian O'Connor into the tournament and watch how hard it is to kick him out of it.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

game preview: Arkansas


Date/Time: Saturday, June 13; 3:00

TV: ESPN

Record against the Hogs: 2-1

Last meeting: UVA 9, UA 2; 6/1/14, Charlottesville (NCAA Regional)

Last weekend: UVA 2-0 over Maryland (5-3, 5-4); UA 2-1 over Mo. St. (18-4, 1-3, 3-2)

Pitching probables:

Virginia: RHP Connor Jones (7-2, 2.95, 105 Ks)
Arkansas: RHP Trey Killian (3-4, 4.74, 56 Ks)

Familiarity, again.  Seems to happen a lot on our roads to Omaha.  UVA played the rude host to Arkansas last year, beating the regional 2 seed twice to polish off a three-game regional sweep.  The stage is bigger now.  UVA must try to battle it out in Omaha against a whole bunch of teams that come much more highly recommended on paper.

It's tempting to draw parallels to Fresno State, the regional four seed that upended the whole tournament and walked out of Omaha as national champs.  Baseball certainly lends itself to that kind of tournament run.  Still, at this point, that's getting ahead of ourselves.  Fresno State had already beaten two regional 1 seeds by this time, and finished up the tourney having beaten literally half the eight national seeds and personally eliminated three of them.  UVA hasn't yet faced a regional 1 seed, and still won't have after this game.  (Miami and Florida, the other teams in the "regional", are both national seeds, so that streak comes to an end in game 2 no matter what.)

UVA faces an Arkansas team struggling, if this is is possible, even more with pitching depth than the Hoos are.  Trey Killian almost certainly gets the ball on Saturday, and those depth issues likely won't hurt the Hogs much yet in game 1, but they recently announced the loss of a mainstay reliever, and they also lost a rotation pitcher during the SEC tournament.  (Dominic Taccolini, who did a very solid job pitching in relief of Killian during last year's first matchup against Arkansas.)

Meanwhile, the Hoos are headed in the other direction.  Nathan Kirby is expected to return to the mound in Omaha.  When, only the coaching staff can say, but at some point, he'll come trotting out of the bullpen.  Given the extra days of rest between games, this is a huge, huge addition, basically giving UVA just about all the depth it needs.  He and Josh Sborz were the gems of their recruiting class and the first two Hoos taken in this year's MLB draft (Brewers and Dodgers, in case you were wondering) - it's a little strange that they're being used as bullpen aces rather than innings-eating starters.

Speaking of starters, Connor Jones will go for UVA.  You know the drill.  Said it before and I'll say it again: as long as Jones and Brandon Waddell are shutting down hitters and pitching deep into games, UVA will keep advancing.  The moment one of them falters, it's the beginning of the end.  Here's the lineup the Razorbacks will send to the plate to face CJ:

-- Catcher: Tucker Pennell (.200-0-7): The light-hitting juco transfer Pennell anchors the ninth spot in the lineup.  With an OPS of just .508, he's neither proficient at getting on base nor a power hitter of any kind.  That means he's probably going to do something totally heroic at some point in this tournament.

-- First base: Clark Eagan (.284-2-30): There's a mashup of solid but unremarkable hitters occupying the 5 through 8 slots in the Arkansas lineup; Eagan is one, having batted both fifth and eighth during the postseason run.  He was a platooning DH last year, but starts regularly at first and boasts a pretty good glove.

-- Second base: Rick Nomura (.294-4-19): Nomura is another back-half player, a hitter who prefers to make contact rather than wait for something to happen; his walks and K's total just 42 all year.  This places him generally fifth or sixth in the order.  He's also an excellent fielder.

-- Third base: Bobby Wernes (.280-5-26):  One of four Arkansas juniors taken in the draft (30th round), Wernes bats second and showed a huge improvement over his numbers from last year, when he barely hit.  This year his bat has some pop, as he's third on the team among eligible players in slugging - 11 of his 63 hits went for more than two bases, a number second only to superstar Andrew Benintendi.

-- Shortstop: Michael Bernal (.280-4-30): Bernal's numbers are a slight oddity; four homers and only five doubles.  Really, he's not a particularly powerful bat, but you can do much worse than to have a .280 hitter in the 7th or 8th slot.  He does have a good batting eye: despite being only seventh among eligible players in batting average, he's second in OBP.  (Partly due to getting plunked a lot, too.)

-- Left field: Joe Serrano (.285-4-35): No, not Pedro.  Leadoff hitter who's also proficient at taking a walk, but also strikes out a bit more than a leadoff hitter should.

-- Center field: Andrew Benintendi (.380-19-55).  The 7th overall pick in the MLB draft, there's not much Benintendi doesn't do.  His OPS isn't a perfectly normal .715 - he slugs .715, with an OPS of 1.204.  His chances of getting on base are almost 1-in-2, and between his extra base hits and his 23 steals, he's got roughly a 1-in-5 chance of getting himself at least to second base every time he steps to the plate.  By far the toughest hitter UVA has faced this postseason.

-- Right field: Tyler Spoon (.331-6-54): As the cleanup hitter, Spoon has the job of protecting Benintendi in the lineup, and does just fine at that.  He's the team leader in doubles and slugs .500 himself.  He doesn't walk much, but it's not his job to.  Spoon is also one of the Hogs' four draftees, going in the 35th round.

-- Designated hitter: Brett McAfee (.280-2-22): McAfee was the starting shortstop for about a month last year before he went down with an injury; he's seen time there this year as well, but settled into the DH job lately.  Sixth or seventh batter and another one of those decent hitters whose numbers don't stink but don't jump off any pages.

-- Starting pitcher: Trey Killian (3-4, 4.74, 56 Ks): Killian has a wide array of different pitches - fastball, cutter, change, slider, curve - and it's the potential to develop at least some of them into major-league stuff that got him drafted pretty high.  That and his excellent sophomore year.  Not so much his junior-year numbers.  Killian battled tendonitis early in the season and hasn't really ever rounded into form.  But he's pitched on Friday most of the year, and with Taccolini out and Keaton McKinney having hip troubles, Killian is really the only healthy starter.  UVA knocked Killian off the bump early in last year's matchup against him; those numbers offer plenty of hope they can do it again.

-- Bullpen: Despite losing James Teague to an elbow injury, Arkansas has plenty of options here; it's their rotation, not their pen, having the major depth issues.  (Teague also started 10 games this year, and probably would've been high on the consideration list to start a game sometime in Omaha.)  Zach Jackson - with 87 Ks in 56.1 innings and a .185 OBA - is used as something of a super-reliever much as Sborz is, and is probably the first off the bench if Killian gets into trouble.  Jackson Lowery is a bit wild at times but a solid option, though he may be held back to start a game himself.  Lance Phillips and Josh Alberius are also dependable options for a couple innings.  One thing about the Arkansas pitching options: they're totally bereft of left-handers, except for a couple players who won't be used.  Every Razorback who takes the hill in Omaha will be a righty.

***********************************

On paper, Arkansas isn't too scary.  (Neither is UVA, but at least we'll be starting an ace with ace numbers.  On the other hand, four of nine lineup hitters are hitting .252 or worse.)  Arkansas isn't too different from USC.  Pretty good lineup - two stars, one guy with barely any bat at all, and six solid regular dudes.  Killian's numbers, though, might be the worst of any starter in Omaha in recent memory.  He's clearly a better pitcher than his stats, but sometimes that's a thing for next year, not right now.

Benintendi will probably get his hits, but whether he does or doesn't, it's mainly the rest of the lineup that'll win or lose this game for Connor Jones.  If he can mow the rest of them down, UVA will win - possibly by a lot.  If the bottom half of the lineup starts dinging him, UVA might find itself on a track to go 0-for-Nebraska.

You can bet, though, that Arkansas won't let Killian dig too deep a hole, if things start going south.  I expect a quick hook.  If UVA's bats start off lively, Arkansas will ask Zach Jackson to hold down the fort while they try and repair the damage.  A big win will require the bats to stay hot against the bullpen.  Ultimately, though, UVA should be favored.  Joe McCarthy has been heating up after an understandably slow start, and UVA has, if nothing else, been the tourney's most clutch-hitting team.  The Hoos have won five games - and been losing to start the 7th inning in all but one (and that was a 1-1 tie.)  With Omaha's ballpark encouraging low-scoring games, that not only gives UVA a chance to build on their clutch reputation, but levels the playing field for a team like ours with a thin bullpen - starters can go deeper into games.  Game 2 will feature a stronger opponent than UVA has yet faced this postseason, but I really like UVA's chances to get there on the winning side of the bracket.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

eleven eighty six times four

Brandon Waddell stalked off the mound looking like he’d just punched out a biker for calling him pipsqueak and trying to ride off with his girlfriend.

I don’t know what inning exactly it was when I noticed the snarl on his face, because he did it more than once.  Noteworthy, for a guy who’s been compared to Jamie Moyer for his mound demeanor.  Home run or strikeout, he’s not usually too expressive.  When you think about it, though, and apply that amateur psychology degree you’ve earned by reading enough message board prophets who can tell exactly how ready a quarterback is through his facemask, the nasty look is really just the natural extension of the quiet confidence that lets you not care what you just did.

I don’t get credit for this observation.  Brian O’Connor does (and Karl Kuhn, to be sure) and the proof came two years ago when Waddell became the first freshman in whenever to start the opening game for UVA.  Lots of pitchers with better stuff have rolled through Charlottesville in the past 10, 12 years.  I’d venture to say few, if any, have his mental makeup.  Branden Kline, maybe, though his mound presence was a lot more fiery.  Brash, even.  Whit Mayberry might be the closest I can think of.

The result of all that was one of the very best-pitched games I’ve seen, ever, out of a UVA pitcher.  Odd thing to say about a guy who gave up 10 hits in 27 at-bats, and four runs.  Don’t care.  Waddell brought to Saturday’s game some of the least electric stuff he’s ever had, and he’s never been a “stuff” pitcher to begin with.  His bender was generally indistinguishable from his change-up, and his fastball was nice and straight and so temptingly hittable.  But he also brought attitude and experience forged in Omaha and postseasons past, and while his arm might’ve been on its C game, his head was A++ all the way.  Maryland put runners on base in literally every one of his eight innings, but could never post a crooked number because in half those innings Waddell struck out the last hitter to strand a baserunner – or three.  (A double play ended another inning, and a pickoff yet another.  Both also very creditable to his amped-up focus.)

Cliché it is, but great pitchers pitch great games with their worst stuff.  It looks a hell of a lot like that, in case you’re wondering.  Ernie Clement got the headlines and the post-game interview for his enormously clutch game-winning hit.  But nothing like that happens if Waddell folds in the first inning with the bases loaded, or the next inning, or the next, or the next and so on and so forth, or any of his eight innings of stubborn refusal to let the game slip away.  Eight innings.  115 pitches.  None of them would’ve lit up a radar gun or turned any heads, but watching a guy keep on bringing them, with a margin of error like a razor blade, and making it work time after time, that’s a privilege just to watch.

-- That game made for one of the oddest pitching duels ever.  You think pitchers’ duel, you think half inning after half inning of 1-2-3 action, 1-0 scores, lots of K’s.  You don’t think 5-4 game where one starter gives up 10 hits and four runs and the other leaves after four hits in 1/3 of an inning and lets his reliever pitch the next 7 2/3.  Robert Galligan was masterful, though, even in having to throw three out of every four pitches off-speed because his fastball was an unpredictable mess.  Between him and Waddell I swear I’ve never seen so much junkballing in one game.

-- Speaking of Galligan, Maryland coach Szefc took a fair amount of heat for not pulling him earlier.  That’s a tough, tough call, though, man.  UVA was not hitting him at all, and it’s hard to call it a bad idea to let him keep working on that.  He’d just set down Matt Thaiss and Kenny Towns to end the 8th with very little trouble.  And Kevin Mooney flat-out stunk on Friday, was (according to Eduardo Perez) wilder than wild in the bullpen, and hucked a warm-up pitch to the backstop.  Mooney was put in a really, really tough spot, but he was pitching so badly – the curve that Clement knocked into left field was hung like a horse – that he’d probably have blown the save even if he’d come in to start the ninth.

-- I don’t like Maryland, I’ll never like Maryland, I want Maryland to lose even to Ohio State in everything – but the look on Mooney’s face was still pretty hard to see.  Take the name off the front of the uniforms and you have to admit: they played a good series, gave UVA as hard a run as just about any team we’ve seen, and a one-two nut punch like that is as tough a way to lose as one can imagine.

-- Also, you’re doing it wrong when Maryland is wearing better-looking uniforms than you are – which was the case in game 1.  Back to normal in game 2, though.  The home-white font is probably my favorite on any baseball uniform, college or pro, so by all means, every time you win something really big, wear those.

-- Nobody ever says it, so I’ll say it: the umpiring was actually, on balance, good.  Not perfect, but you can always find a ball-strike call to bitch about.

-- So was the announcing, if you had a magic button that muted Mike Patrick and only let Eduardo Perez speak.  Patrick, other than being one of the rare announcers to make extensive use of the Hoos nickname, which is a good thing, was more or less senile.  I’m not sure I can even count on two hands the number of times he botched a player’s position, team, or even which team was up to bat.  The Saturday game took place on the 71st anniversary of D-Day, which it’s a good thing Patrick didn’t mention because it sure would’ve been confusing listening to him reminisce about the Germans storming the beach.


Perez, though, was absolutely loaded with insightful tidbits.  He found tipped pitches, he would suggest X was about to happen right before X happened, overall he deployed a really excellent baseball mind for the benefit of his audience.  One example: Perez noted that a particular throw to first was a really good idea.  When Patrick asked why, Perez pointed out that on an 0-2 count it’s not uncommon for a runner to go on the first move, anticipating a (possibly in the dirt) breaking ball, and you might get a cheap pickoff that way.  That’s the sort of thing I think all broadcasters should bring to a ballgame.  Contrast that with ESPN’s lacrosse announcers who basically just host Lacrosse2Night during the game and ignore things like a 30-second call, which you know maybe you should explain to some of your viewers why one team just put the ball down for no apparent reason and the other team was allowed to pick it up.

-- Going to Omaha, the big big question is: Nathan Kirby?  The answer is no, he's not going to start any games.  BOC said as much, more or less, in an official-site interview.  What he said was Kirby might be available out of the bullpen, but it amounts to the same thing.  Kirby's only just started throwing bullpen sessions and his conditioning can't be completely up to snuff.  He's not going five innings, probably not even three.

But.  UVA has played five games, three of which has seen the entire bullpen consist of Josh Sborz.  Alec Bettinger did nicely in relief of Waddell on Saturday, mainly because we were losing and Sborz was being held back for Sunday.  If that had been an 8th inning rally instead of the 9th, Sborz would've been sent right back out there.  The other game, game 3 of the regional, was all about Johnny Wholestaff, because Bettinger was getting shelled, and oh by the way Sborz pitched that one too.

So Kirby in the bullpen is a marvelous addition.  In an ideal world, UVA wins all the time and pitches Connor Jones against Arkansas, Waddell in the next game, and brings Jones back for game 3, then lines up the finals with Waddell, Bettinger-and-company, and Jones again.  In the real world, BOC has to plan for extra games, and too many of those is a major issue.  Having Kirby available, with days in between games even if you lose - that can't be overstated.

-- The fact that we're even talking about this is unreal.  Pinch me.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

series preview: Maryland


Date/Time: Fri.-Sun., 6/5-6/7; 4:00, 3:00, 3:00
(Sunday if necessary)

TV: ESPNUVA on Fri. and Sat., ESPNUVA or ESPN2 on Sun.

Record against the Terps: 111-80-1

Last meeting: UVA 2-1 over Maryland (4-5, 7-3, 11-2); 6/7-6/9/14, Charlottesville (NCAA Super Regional)

Last weekend:
UVA won Lake Elsinore Regional (6-1 over USC, 3-1 over SDSU, 14-10 over USC)

Maryland won Los Angeles Regional (3-1 over Ole Miss, 4-1 over UCLA, 2-4 to UCLA, 2-1 over UCLA)

Pitching probables:

Friday:
RHP Connor Jones (6-2, 2.90, 101 Ks) vs. RHP Mike Shawaryn (13-2, 1.66, 133 Ks)

Saturday:
LHP Brandon Waddell (3-5, 4.12, 74 Ks) vs. RHP Brian Shaffer (5-1, 4.57, 52 Ks)

Sunday:
RHP Alec Bettinger (4-5, 4.89, 62 Ks) vs. RHP Ryan Selmer (3-1, 1.86, 19 Ks)

(Friday's have been released officially.  Saturday and Sunday are wild guesses of my own.  Bettinger got nuked last weekend but it's not like we're loaded down with other options.  Selmer only has three starts this season for Maryland but two were in the postseason and the other was the week before.)

Hosting a super regional is almost old hat for UVA.  The way we got here this year is not.  The combination of circumstances it took to make that happen had some astronomical odds attached.  Funny sport, though, baseball.  So much of it is mental, and so much of the mental aspect comes from confidence and having been there before.  UVA is just about officially that team that won't die til you stab the heart.

Course, maybe being at home isn't the greatest thing, the way UVA has struggled (relatively speaking) at Davenport and been so good on the road.  And you can bet the opponent wants blood.  Revenge will be on the Terps' mind, after they were just one win away from Omaha last year at the same venue.  UVA doesn't have nearly the team it had last year, on paper, and that pitching staff still is what it is: thinner than cheap beer.  D1Baseball gives UVA the edge absolutely nowhere on the field - but gives the Hoos the intangibles edge.  Sometimes that's all it takes.

The scouting report on Maryland:

-- First base: Kevin Biondic (.182-0-9).  Almost certain to bat ninth. Biondic has been in and out of the lineup all year as the Terps hunted for back-of-the-order hitters who could, uh, hit.

-- Second base: Brandon Lowe (.329-9-53).  Maryland's park is a bandbox, with the deepest part being about 370 or so, and right-handers in particular can hit balls out like it's nothing.  You have to take most RH power numbers with a grain of salt.  Lowe, however, is a lefty.  He leads Maryland in nearly all conceivable categories, including HBP, and is entrenched in the 3-hole in the lineup.

-- Third base: Jose Cuas (.241-11-53).  The book on Cuas is much the same as last year: not the world's greatest contact hitter and strikes out too often, but when he gets his bat on the ball it can really fly.  Typically bats fifth.

-- Shortstop: Kevin Smith (.274-7-35).  Not much sticks out.  Smith is a good player, was described as such in the "opposing coach breakdown" on D1Baseball, and never mentioned again.  He bats second, and basically does his job, neither striking the fear of God into anyone, nor acting the automatic out.

-- Left field: Tim Lewis (.215-0-32).  Not an ounce of pop in his bat and never has been, but he can wheel around the bases and has five triples to show for his efforts.  He was a much better hitter last year and has lost almost eighty points off his average this year.  Bats in the bottom third of the order.

-- Center field: LaMonte Wade (.344-4-29).  Missed a portion of the season.  As tough an out as there is in the Maryland lineup, with 29 walks against only 16 strikeouts.  Natural and obvious leadoff hitter.

-- Right field: Anthony Papio (.261-6-25).  Fills out the sixth or seventh spot in the order.  Not a frightening hitter.  Last year I called him a strikeout machine; this is still true as he has 61 of them.  Still, one of only two players to start every game.

-- Catcher: Kevin Martir (.339-7-44).  A good hitter who holds down the cleanup spot and makes a very difficult middle of the order hitting behind Lowe.  You can run him ragged on the basepaths, though; he's only thrown out nine of 37 basestealers.

-- Designated hitter: Nick Cieri (.305-3-27).  Much better hitter than he was last year, when he was the only freshman in the starting lineup.  Usually bats sixth or seventh.

-- Pitching staff:

Friday: RHP Mike Shawaryn.  Only a sophomore, Shawaryn is one of the top pitchers in the country.  Lots of national recognition: first-team all-American, national team roster, etc.  UVA avoided Dillon Tate, so this is easily the toughest pitcher they've faced in the postseason.  Shawaryn doesn't have an overpowering fastball or anything like a nasty slider, but he commands his pitches exceptionally well and his changeup has developed big-time just over the course of this season.

Saturday: RHP Brian Shaffer.  A guess here.  Shaffer has been the second pitcher on the hill in the B1G tourney and the regional as well.  Shaffer's a tall, lanky righty at 6'5", 181, who throws to a ton of contact.  He's walked just 9 in 61 innings this year, and - rare for a college pitcher - hasn't hit any batters.  You have to hit him.  He doesn't have overpowering stuff at all, and relies on his defense.  If your hits find the gaps, you'll knock him off the bump early.  That said, he threw 7 innings against top Big Ten team Illinois, in the tournament, and shut them down hard.

Sunday: RHP Ryan Selmer.  Another guess.  Like Shaffer, a freshman, but even taller at 6'8".  To make things more fun, he's a sinkerballer, though that part of the scouting report might've been influenced by how high he throws the ball from to begin with.  He doesn't strike out many hitters, but it's really hard to hit the ball in the air against a guy like this.

Bullpen: Maryland has a really good 8-9 setup in Alex Robinson and closer Kevin Mooney.  Mooney was a roller coaster last year; this year, opponents are batting .131.  Robinson is a really hard-throwing lefty; he walks lots of guys, strikes out even more, and also barely allows any hits.  The kind of pitcher who really messes up your approach after you've seen seven innings of righties without elite velocity.  Maryland will also heavily use Zach Morris and Robert Galligan, both also lefties.  Galligan is a long, long reliever, good for more than once through the order if necessary, and could start a game.

-- Synopsis: It's hard to believe Maryland is the only thing standing between UVA and Omaha.  After all that's gone on this season, Omaha is two wins away.  Incredible.

Maryland is no pushover.  They have a very decided advantage on the mound.  More bullpen depth, more bullpen talent, a true ace in Shawaryn, and far better options on Sunday than UVA can pull out.  At least on paper.  Nathan Kirby has been kinda sorta cleared to pitch, but nobody should be expecting him to swoop into the rescue.

That means, like the regional, this series is on the shoulders of Connor Jones and Brandon Waddell.  Jones is the best we got right now.  Waddell has struggled, but he pitched a beauty against SDSU and Maryland is probably a slight downgrade at the plate from the Aztecs.

At the plate is where UVA has the edge.  D1Baseball called it a push, but Maryland's home run numbers, especially on all their right-handed hitters (and they have many), thanks to the phone booth they play in.  And oh yeah the conference they play in - even though the Big Ten put two other teams in the tourney, it was still crappy most of the rest of the way down the standings.  If the UVA lineup can get to Shawaryn, look out.

This is a pretty evenly-matched series, so if I were a faraway objective observer, I'd give the edge to Maryland in three games.  Pitching staff.  Intangibles could swing this series wildly in either direction, though.  Does Maryland have a healthy sense of revenge?  Does UVA's pitching hit a wall and fold?  Or do Maryland's freshmen - and they have quite a few in the lineup and on the hill, including Shaffer and Selmer - get all wide-eyed and shaky while UVA's battle-tested group buckles down to business?  Fascinating storylines and Omaha at stake.  Doesn't get much better.

Monday, June 1, 2015

super, thanks for asking

It took a while, but spring finally sprung, as they say.  You can tell because UVA sports have begun kicking ass again.

So much that was said about the Lake Elsinore regional came true.  Evenly-matched?  Yup - the regional flipped upside-down right out of the gate, with the top two teams both facing elimination after one day.  UCSB as a shaky host?  Yup again - the only one seed not to win a game.  And UVA needing to race through at top speed or else miss out on the supers?  I guess we don't know for sure, which is good.

But BOC sure felt that way.  In other years, Josh Sborz probably wouldn't have been kept on the mound after his team padded a 3-1 lead with three more runs brought to you by Geico.  And he wouldn't have been asked to "save" a five-run lead after pitching the previous two days, either.  Sborz's usage tells you all you need to know about how BOC felt about stretching out the series, which is to say, DON'T, at all costs short of shredding all his elbow ligaments.

It's obvious why: come the 11th inning, the Hoos were down to one unused pitcher, who was also the center fielder.  Had UVA lost that game I don't know what the hell, man.  You'd have had to hope a combination of Adam Haseley and Alec Bettinger could've gotten you through seven innings, eight if you're really lucky, and then I suppose more of Sborz (who wouldn't have gone on Sunday if he wasn't protecting a lead) and then some dudes who'd pitched like three innings all year.

Scary thought.  Less scary had San Diego State held on in the losers' bracket, because their pitching staff is in even worse shape, which makes me sort of wish they'd beaten USC and then us on Sunday to set up a hitters' duel for the ages.  If 14-10 represents the mutual near-collapse of two pitching staffs, I'd've bet everything on the over in a UVA-SDSU matchup on Monday.  I guess we'll just have to settle for winning the regional the semi-easy way.

A lot of credit goes to hitting that was clutcher than clutch.  Ernie Clement delivered the game-winning hit on Saturday and almost the whole lineup made Sunday happen, but for my money the guys who won this regional are Connor Jones and Brandon Waddell.  This simply doesn't happen if they don't both pitch into the eighth, combine for sixteen innings, and allow one lousy run each.  UVA will advance through the tournament as long as those two pitch lights-out, and be eliminated when they don't.

***************************************************

I have yet to exult in UVA's 22nd national championship, so: woohoo tennis!  Five schools have won multiple national championships this season - UConn, Colorado, Ohio State, Stanford, and, of course, because I wouldn't mention it otherwise, UVA.  Three years ago, men's tennis was a program with a rep for being that program that couldn't get over the hump.  Now with two trophies, they've taken their place in the elite.  Hopefully for quite some time.

I was also going to write about consecutive trophies, but I forgot it was two years ago they won their first.  I realized I was thinking of Danielle Collins's individual singles championship last year.  Silly me, mixing up our powerhouse programs like that.  It didn't help my muddled situation that Ryan Shane won the singles title this year.  All these damn trophies are so confusing to keep track of.  How I long for the simplicity of life in Blacksburg and the clean, uncluttered trophy cases and freed-up postseason schedules.  Oh wait no I don't.

***************************************************

-- Don't you love when you watch this really long drawn-out recruitment that takes years and then the subject of said recruitment sticks around for one season and then boogies?  Jamil Kamara's name first popped up when he was a high school freshman at Princess Anne.  His full UVA career: one catch, six yards.  Unlike the loss of Greyson Lambert I don't really chalk this up to the fact that this program is the result of a crash between a fireworks truck and an oil tank.  I guess you could argue that there's excessive WR depth and that the inmates are just a little too much in charge of the asylum when it comes to redshirting decisions.  I'd happily concede both points.  It's just that Kamara's overinflated opinion of his readiness is why he didn't redshirt last year in the first place, and why he'll be suiting up elsewhere next year.

-- I know the baseball team's camo unis have a near-perfect win-loss record.  I still hate them.  Especially when the home whites are so damn classy-looking and they finally got a set of decent road grays.  I'd just hate to think we might finally win a national title and all the lasting images of the team that does so would be in brown.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

lake elsinore regional preview

Not-so-fun fact: The last time UVA baseball played in an NCAA regional that was 1) not in Charlottesville and 2) not in the Pacific time zone was 1996.  Every UVA placement in the Brian O'Connor era has either been as a host or in California, except for the one trip to Corvallis, Oregon.  Geographic constraints, I suppose.  You can send three teams on short plane rides, or two teams on bus rides and one team to the opposite coast.  That's how the selection committee thinks, and thus UVA is taking another trip to the desert to face three teams that could practically ride their bikes to the playground.

Last time that happened, though, things went pretty well.  So we'll see.  There's a semi-familiar opponent in San Diego State, last seen futilely throwing Stephen Strasburg at the Hoos' lineup.  UC-Irvine isn't here, but there's another UC-Somebody in their place.  And the Hoos' actual matchup is a fascinating story.  Oh, and if UVA gets past the regional, they won't leave the state, and the #1 overall seed likely awaits.  So the storylines are here, the teams are here, let's see what it all entails.

#1 seed - UCSB Gauchos

Conference: Big West
Record: 40-15 (16-8)
RPI: #20

Lineup:

C: Campbell Wear (.195-1-21)
1B: Robby Nesovic (.344-0-39)
2B: Woody Woodward (.295-0-12)
3B: Peter Maris (.300-2-24)
SS: Clay Fisher (.247-0-18)
LF: Cameron Newell (.380-3-31)
CF: Andrew Calica (.315-1-18)
RF: Luke Swenson (.307-0-29)
DH: Paddy O'Brien (.400-2-18)

SP: Dillon Tate (8-4, 2.08, 100 Ks)
SP: Justin Jacome (7-4, 2.53, 91 Ks)
SP: Shane Bieber (8-4, 2.26, 95 Ks)
SP: Domenic Mazza (6-1, 2.69, 72 Ks)

RP: Robby Nesovic (1-0, 2.70, 13 Ks)
RP: Kyle Nelson (3-1, 0.80, 31 Ks)
RP: Connor Baits (1-0, 4.32, 11 Ks)
RP: Chris Clements (3-0, 2.16, 10 Ks)

Lineup notes: The DH position here is rotated heavily among a few different players, and substituted liberally.  O'Brien is the best hitter of that otherwise not real inspiring group, but Billy Fredrick does have a very patient batting eye, with 18 walks in 72 plate appearances.  Some lineup shuffling was necessary when 1B Dalton Kelly broke his leg in April.

If talking about formidable #1 seeds to try and get past, UVA could hardly have landed in a more favorable regional.  UCSB is a host instead of a 2 seed somewhere because the Big West is legitimately a tough conference; the higher-RPI teams that aren't hosting are in legitimately bad conferences.

Like any 40-win team, UCSB has some high-quality bats in their lineup.  Unlike most #1 seeds, it's not a murderer's row.  The clear best hitter in the lineup is Cameron Newell, the Big West co-POY.  Newell, along with Andrew Calica and Luke Swenson, is part of a very sure-handed outfield; Newell and Calica had zero errors this season and Calica has never committed one in his career.  Calica's a very tough player to put out; he's second on the team in walks and fast on the basepaths with 14 stolen bases against only four times caught.

The top six or seven in the very flexible batting lineup (any Gaucho player might hit in almost any slot, and even Calica, who had a 37-game on-base streak to open the season, has batted as low as eighth) are generally at least solid hitters, but there are some weak points, particularly sub-Mendoza catcher Campbell Wear.  There's not a lot of home run power, though - no Gaucho has more than three - so they bunt and send baserunners frequently.  (Sounds like someone I remember from the last California trip.)

UCSB's real strength is on the mound.  Any one of four starters could take the mound and be a major threat to shut you down.  Dillon Tate is one of the country's elite pitchers and a very likely top-five pick in the upcoming MLB draft, possibly even #1.  (Sounds like someone I remember from the last California trip.)  Tate changes speeds on his fastball, sometimes cranking it up near 96 or 97 or dropping it as low as 91.  His slider is a nasty strikeout pitch, and his well-developed changeup isn't instantly deadly but as a third pitch it's a big reason he's projected so high.

The next two guys on the list are no picnic either.  Justin Jacome and Shane Bieber each pitched very deep into games this year, averaging over 7 1/3 innings per start.  Jacome's control is exquisite, walking just nine batters in 111.1 innings.  Fourth in line is Domenic Mazza, mostly a weekday starter and occasional reliever, but then, weekday starter doesn't mean quite the same as it does in a power conference like the ACC.  Mazza beat fellow regional member USC twice this season.  He'll likely give UCSB an enormous advantage on Sunday this weekend.

This is a beatable team if you can hit them.  Easier said than done.  On a 1-to-10 scale for chances of getting out of the regional alive, D1Baseball gave UCSB a 3.  Ouch.  But the Gauchos will have the advantage in any close game, particularly in, say, the sixth inning when you're starting to warm someone up and their starter is still trucking.  This is an evenly-matched regional by a lot of metrics, and UCSB's bats strike fear into nobody.  But it's never a bad idea to bet on the team with all the pitching.

#2 seed - USC Trojans

Conference: Pac-12
Record: 37-19 (18-12)
RPI: #23

C: Garrett Stubbs (.330-1-22)
1B: Jeremy Martinez (.290-1-35)
2B: Dante Flores (.315-5-41)
3B: Blake Lacey (.295-0-34)
SS: Reggie Southall (.230-1-18)
LF: Bobby Stahel (.379-4-31)
CF: Timmy Robinson (.298-6-50)
RF: A.J. Ramirez (.268-8-39)
DH: David Oppenheim (.281-3-24)

SP: Kyle Twomey (7-2, 2.81, 65 Ks)
SP: Mitch Hart (7-3, 3.67, 48 Ks)
RP: Kyle Davis (3-2, 4.23, 43 Ks)

RP: Tyler Gilbert (4-2, 2.97, 62 Ks)
RP: Brent Wheatley (4-3, 3.68, 62 Ks)
RP: Marc Huberman (6-4, 2.37, 48 Ks)
RP: Bernardo Flores (3-1, 3.38, 44 Ks)
RP: Brooks Kriske (2-1, 2.45, 26 Ks)

Lineup notes: This is a very stable lineup with few changes day-to-day, but USC does platoon at shortstop between Southall and Angelo La Bruna.  It's nothing to do with lefty-righty stuff; they're both switch-hitters.  They're just both not that good, is all.

USC is a helluva story.  Picture Duke, post Coach-K, perpetually finishing 10th in the conference and occasionally scraping an NIT bid as a 6-seed, for a decade, and you get an idea of what Trojan baseball has been like.  After uber-legend Rod Dedeaux retired in the '80s after earning more rings than he had fingers to put them, Mike Gillespie (you see how this keeps coming back to times past?) ran the team for another 20+ years, scoring another national title in 1998.  But Gillespie "retired" after missing the tournament three out of four years,** USC hired his son-in-law for whatever reason, and proceeded to disappear.

The Trojans are back, and they'll be UVA's opponent on Friday.  The dominance has passed to their neighbor UCLA, the national #1 seed, but USC is one of a handful of very respectable Pac-12 teams this year, tying for third in the conference with Cal and ASU.  Their lineup hits for average about as well as 1 seed UCSB, but there's more power in it.  Quite a bit more.  A.J. Ramirez only hits .268, but he leads the team in doubles (14) and home runs (8).

The triples leader, though, is Bobby Stahel, an interesting player to watch.  He's got speed and the best bat on the Trojan team.  D1Baseball's regional preview points out that he's made several web-gem diving catches in the outfield, too, and then goes on to say, "he has been in a handful of rundowns, but has been known to get caught sleeping and get doubled up on flyouts as well."  Wheeee basepath adventures.

USC also sports probably the regional's best catcher, which is actually saying something as there's a lot of quality behind the plate in Lake Elsinore.  Garrett Stubbs has cut down over half the baserunners trying to steal on him, an important weapon because most of the teams in this regional are pretty stealy.  That includes USC most of all, as the Trojans have stolen 93 bases this year, about one and a half per game.  Stubbs himself, along with Timmy Robinson, leads the way there - both have 19.  He's also one of USC's only three .300 hitters and their best bunter.

The Trojans almost certainly have the regional's best bullpen (though that's partly a function of UCSB's starting rotation that renders the bullpen halfway moot.)  There's a lot of pitchers they can call on in later innings.  This is the likely reason they've made the interesting choice of Kyle Davis as the Friday starter against UVA - they can hold back Kyle Twomey and Mitch Hart for the later games of the weekend, and quickly yank Davis for a reliever if he gets into trouble.

This makes for a pretty good matchup for UVA in the first game, as much as a regional three seed could say that.  USC's lineup is good, and if you make a mistake they'll drill it and then steal their way to scoring position, but good pitching should also be able to quiet them down.  Davis allows opposing hitters to bat .297.  It might be fun to let Stahel walk just to see if it's true he comes from the run-til-you're-out school of baserunning, but really, he and Stubbs are the guys you want to send back to the dugout early.  USC won't pinch-hit much, if at all, so a good scouting report on the hitters they send up goes a long way.  A very plausible scenario is for UVA to beat USC on Friday and then lose to Dillon Tate on Saturday, so a possible return game on Sunday with the Trojans can be made easier by jumping on Davis very early and forcing the Trojans to burn some bullpen and neutralize somewhat the huge advantage they have on UVA in that department.

**Gillespie immediately found a job managing in short-season A ball and then went right back to college coaching, so you can read "retired" as "politely kicked out for some dumb reason."

#4 seed - San Diego State Aztecs

Conference: Mountain West
Record: 40-21 (19-10)
RPI: #76

C: Seby Zavala (.283-14-64)
1B: Andrew Brown (.299-1-31)
2B: Alan Trejo (.251-1-16)
3B: Ty France (.346-4-48)
SS: Danny Sheehan (.310-6-45)
LF: Spencer Thornton (.328-2-20)
CF: Steven Pallares (.341-8-47)
RF: Chase Calabuig (.320-1-25)
DH: Justin Wylie (.245-3-16)

SP: Bubba Derby (7-4, 3.35, 122 Ks)
SP: Mark Seyler (9-2, 2.80, 78 Ks)
SP: Marcus Reyes (7-3, 4.20, 45 Ks)
SP: Cody Thompson (4-4, 4.13, 66 Ks)

RP: C.J. Saylor (3-3, 4.86, 42 Ks)
RP: Brian Heldman (3-1, 3.44, 28 Ks)
RP: Brett Seeburger (1-0, 7.01, 26 Ks)
RP: Jacob Erickson (2-1, 3.14, 23 Ks)

Lineup notes: In the MWC tournament, SDSU lost the first game, then made a lineup shuffle that rotated Brown to DH, Wylie in LF, Thornton in RF, Calabuig in CF, and Pallares to 1B.  They kept on winning til they lifted a trophy, and stuck with that lineup the rest of the tourney.  I have no idea whether it'll stick this weekend.

This team, lineup-wise, isn't that different from USC.  Other than the musical chairs noted above, it's a stable lineup with a decent amount of power and solid contact.  Unlike the other three teams in the regional, with Newell, Stahel, and Matt Thaiss, they don't have an obvious elephant in the lineup, but there's good balance at the top and a very solid knack for getting on base.  Bunch of guys with double-digit HBP, and Chase Calabuig, who is not one of them, has 37 walks.

Is it a good enough lineup to touch up UCSB's rotation, though?  Eh....the MWC is a one-bid league, so evaluating their hitting always has to take that into account.  They likely won't get the pleasure of facing Dillon Tate, but we've been over this.  Whoever UCSB throws on Friday is probably better than anyone SDSU faced in-conference.

The Aztecs' pitching, though - eesh.  UCSB has the starters.  USC has the pen.  UVA has - well, some draftable talent, at least a star or two.  SDSU, though, probably has three pitchers you'd really trust in postseason play.  Bubba Derby is one; his 122 strikeouts are more than anyone else in this regional, but he knows how to find the dirt, too.  Mark Seyler is steadier and maybe more effective overall; it was Derby who was rocked in the MWC tourney opener.  Brian Heldman is OK out of the pen.  Jacob Erickson has the lowest ERA among regular relievers, but plunks a batter every four innings.

We've seen worse lineups from #4 seeds, and if they get it together all at once they could at least make it to Sunday.  But a pitching staff like this isn't winning any regionals, ever.

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So, what's the strategy for UVA this weekend?  Settle in for story time.  When I was about, oh, 10, 11, or so, I was at summer camp playing some kind of organized tag or capture the flag or obstacle course game, whatever it was.  This camp had a creek at the bottom of a steeply sloped gully of sorts.  During the course of this game I was running pell-mell towards the creek and found myself there before I thought I'd get there, and then found myself sprinting just as fast down the gully.  Bit scary, but I decided my best chance of not tumbling ass over teakettle into the bottom was just to keep running and try to put my foot somewhere safe with each step.  If I tried to stop and go more deliberately, I'd definitely crash.  I ended up still upright at the bottom with enough momentum to get me halfway back up the other side before I had to do any real climbing work.

Why I remember this I don't know.  But this is pretty much how UVA has to approach this regional.  And BOC knows it.  He knows what he's doing with pitching staffs, and remember this is the guy that held Danny Hultzen for Saturday and let Robert Morey try to beat Stephen Strasburg.  He definitely believes in the rule that your ace goes in game 2 no matter what.  Not this year, though.  Connor Jones is throwing against USC, Brandon Waddell, presumably, gets the next call.  BOC has said, more or less, that Josh Sborz goes whenever he's needed.  We're going all out to win the first one and then the next one and so on - no chess matches.  The best chance we have is to go 3-0.  The longer this gets stretched out, the faster our chances swirl the drain.

Bigger-picture, this is a fascinating regional.  The top three seeds have RPIs of 20, 23, and 21.  The teams have a lot in common.  They play the college-ball style to various degrees - bunts and steals.  They all have good catchers who can nullify that game.  All but SDSU have a single big-time hitter surrounded by a solid supporting cast; SDSU just has a bit more balance at the top.  Oh, and the host is the second-farthest team from the stadium site, since they don't have lights of their own.  It'll feel more like a true neutral site, except that orange and blue probably won't be well-represented.  And the prize: a trip across town to play the national #1 seed, barring a wild upset.

And because 2009-all-over-again won't go away, if there is a wild upset, the likely beneficiary, and therefore the likely super-regional host if UVA pulls off this regional .... is Ole Miss.  Somewhere, Tim Weiser is cackling.